The Bus to Urgup

Robert Walton

© Copyright 2018 by Robert Walton


Photo of mountains.  Photo (c) 2018 by Jon Walton.
Photo by Jon Walton.

Shaky and weak, I stood atop a sandy ridge called Sunset Point. Some Turkish bug still prowled the far corners of my body. My theory that consuming liberal daily rations of Raki in Istanbul would immunize me from such maladies proved to be wrong. My sons stirred beside me. I took a deep breath and pondered both my own condition and our immediate future. Bouncy and chatty, the boys (Jeremy's twenty-nine and Jon's twenty-four) were boys again, excited by our coming adventure. I had doubts, not the least of which was my unhappy tummy. Still, one of the great joys of fatherhood is to do things with your kids. We were undeniably about to do something together. Six miles away in the blue distance we could see our destination, Goremé, a small town in central Anatolia.

The helpful young man from our lodging, Esbelli Evi, had driven us west on the main highway and then, after a tire stretching turn, north on a dirt road into the strange crags of Cappadocia. The geologic features of this area remind me strongly of Utah's hoodoos, of Bryce Canyon. A major difference, as we soon discovered, was that this rugged countryside was heavily inhabited for a couple of thousand years.

Before we took our first steps, I looked to the southwest. The tower of a ruined castle, empty windows gaping skull-like, stood high on a distant hill. Below it were the buildings of Goreme. I wanted to make sure that I could recognize an obvious landmark before we dropped into the maze of canyons below us. Our plan was to walk only a few miles through the Rose Valley and find a midway village where we could catch a bus. No problem, but I know how best-laid plans go.

The sons were impatient, so we started before I'd finished fixing the castle tower’s direction in my mind. We dropped steeply down a sandy trail into a morning-shadowed valley. I slipped a couple of times because I wasn't paying strict attention to where I placed my feet. My eyes, instead of tending to business, were drawn to the surrounding sandstone walls and towers, most of which bore the marks of human hands. Many were hollowed into dwellings. Some, worn by centuries, retained only a window opening the outdoors to the outdoors. Others possessed a stray ramp or a cluster of galleries. Early Christians lived here, thousands of them, for hundreds of years. These ruins are the shadows of their lives.

We came to a place where the trail forked and there was no reason to choose one branch over the other. Later, we encountered webs of trails - trails weaving randomly across each other - all unmarked. This first branching caused an argument. Jon and I voted to take the high road. Jeremy pronounced us wrong. Ruben Batista and Patrick Allen, companions on many a previous hike, symbolically joined our argument. Though thousands of miles away and ignorant of the particulars, they automatically, if silently, sided with Jon and me. They disagree with Jeremy on principle, always have.

Though Jeremy continued to complain with his customary volume and eloquence, Jon, Patrick, Ruben and I won the argument. We took the high trail. A few moments of walking brought us to a rounded hill and a dead-end. Jeremy expostulated in righteous justification. Jon and I refused to concede, though we did take the downward leading path. Ruben and Patrick were still silent.

This trail became a wretched, eroded gully, steep and treacherous. We slid, slipped and skidded for several hundred feet into what we hoped was the correct valley. Going back up would be beastly. Just as we reached more level ground, a German couple came around a corner. They were struggling with the footing, too, and took the opportunity to stop. They confessed that they were lost and wondered if we knew the correct trail.

We laughed. They smiled in mystification. Jeremy told them that the road wasn't far. He told them to go up and then left and we all wished them luck!

Between them, my sons had picked some sightseeing goals for this hike. One of these, the white church, appeared before us. Rather, the cliff out of which this church was carved appeared before us. The tunnel entrance to the church was at the far end of a sloping ledge. The drop from this ledge was twenty feet or so into a rocky streambed, far enough to put a considerable dent in even my durable head. Advising caution, I followed the sons out onto the ledge. It wasn't exactly rock climbing, but I took great care where I put my feet.
We passed through the entrance tunnel into a dark and narrow room. Beyond this room, lit by bars of light pouring through high windows, was the main hall of the church. It was some fifty feet in length, thirty feet wide and at least twenty tall and it was indeed white. Decorative columns, arches and vaults sculpted the falling light into graceful curves and shadows. Alcoves for vanished shrines lay to the left. I looked at all and tried to adjust my mind to the fact that this beautiful room had not been built. It had been carved, carved out of stone. The disciplined effort required, and the sophistication of the society which supported this effort, gave me new respect for those who lived in this place long ago. Further, the pockets of cultivation along our path, mostly vines and fruit trees, reinforced the notion that rural peoples, both ancient and modern, have much to teach the world about sustainability. Photo of Robert and a son in a cave. Photo (c) 2018 by Jon Walton.
Photo by Jon Walton.

We exited the white church and made our way back to the main trail.

Jon poked his nose behind a screen of tall brush and discovered a mysterious tunnel. My sons have always been suckers for tunnels, so we plunged into this one. It was wide enough for a couple of lanes of traffic and tall enough to accommodate a school bus. A brook trickled along its floor. Aside from the fact that it was not pitch black and did not smell of bat urine, it reminded me of a certain lava tube we once explored in Oregon. We followed its curve and emerged into hazy sunlight after forty yards or so. We turned and looked back. The great tunnel had obviously been carved to ease the passage of the modest stream on its floor. That stream must become a great deal healthier in wet months. Curiosity satisfied, we returned to the trail.

We next scrambled up a goat track toward what we hoped would be a wider trail, higher on the valley rim. Jeremy, trying to shorten our scramble, started up a tilted slab. Fathers and sons inevitably have embedded disagreements. One such arose now as Jeremy slipped, slid and teetered up the slab. Did I mention the cliff at its bottom? My older son insists on wearing leather soled boots rather than modern hiking shoes. Now, cowboy boots are ideal for their intended purpose: riding horses. They are miserable and dangerous for climbing rocks. I commented on his poor choice of footwear – something I’d done often before - and he objected to my paternal carping. Fortunately, he lived through the short climb. Several hundred yards of silent walking repaired our mood.

Rose Valley dropped away to our left. We rounded a corner and found, of all things, what appeared to be Aladdin's cave. Multi-colored rugs adorned its entrance and gleams of polished brass shone from within. A Turkish proprietor popped out of the cave as we approached. Jeremy speaks fluent Turkish and engaged the young man in an animated discussion. Turks tend to be amiable, open, confident and talkative. They are universally delighted when some foreigner speaks Turkish. Even my fractured phrases invariably earned smiles and helpfulness. This fellow was no exception. He greeted us with great friendliness and asked if we wanted tea. Yes, tea would go very well. He conducted us to benches and a table just to the side of the cave's entrance. We seated ourselves and glasses of tea appeared magically, almost before we'd removed our packs.
I sipped from my steaming glass and took in the vista spread before us. Goremé was again visible, as was the haunted castle above it. Also visible were towering thunderclouds with their purple scarves of rain sweeping the lands below us. Our future offered precipitation, but I felt no dismay. I sipped more tea and felt content.

Some moments in life are pure. Each of us has them. They come when they will and are recognizable treasures when they arrive. Such a moment was upon me now. Sitting with my sons, sweet tea in hand, above and within immense natural beauty: nothing is better.
A raindrop plonked into my glass. Other fat drops shattered on the table before us -time to move. We returned our glasses to the cave-keeper and had a peek inside. It wasn't a huge cave, but it was carpeted from top to bottom and from side to side. Red rugs, umber rugs, brown rugs, bold-patterned rugs, subtle-patterned rugs overlapped each other everywhere, all for sale. Brass lamps and platters glittered in the light of oil lamps, Aladdin lamps. I was tempted to duck inside and rub one.

The cave-shop-keeper, realizing that we didn't intend to lug a rug or a brass tray down the trail, ushered us to a table of more portable souvenirs. I must mention here that I've long supported local entrepreneurs. Small business commerce is the heart of any town. My gripe with a market-governed economy is that some of the big boys always cheat. Need I mention the current mortgage meltdown, Enron, or the Savings and Loan collapse of the nineties? That's why I'm always willing to pay a bit more to a local guy. That's why I prepared to pay a bit more to this local guy. I forked over about five bucks and got a small, simulated Grecian urn carved from serpentine. I planned to put it in wife Phyllis’s stocking at Christmas. Long-term husbands will understand my satisfaction at making this purchase. Thirty-five years of marriage makes it tough to come up with decent gifts for your wife. Travel affords new possibilities.

After I'd parted with my money and tucked the quite substantial urn into my backpack, the rain became serious. We secured permission from our host cave-keeper to take shelter in an adjoining cavern accessed by a rickety ladder. As drops pounded down and lightning zinged into nearby peaks, we mounted the ladder (rickety was a kind assessment of its condition) into a wide alcove. I was quite happy to sit and watch the storm perform. The sons went exploring side tunnels.

After twenty minutes or so, we were able to climb down the suspect ladder - one at a time, gingerly - and resume our walk. We waved to the friendly Turk and rounded another corner. The trail now ascended gently, crossed a ridge and then turned down the other side of the same ridge. Rose Valley, presumably, fell away on our left; another valley, deep and eroded, followed us on the right. Cold wind, impressive even by Salinas Valley standards, gusted from the north. Another storm cell loomed behind it. Purple, black and sprouting lightning, it prompted us to make haste. I mentioned to the sons that we were the highest things in the neighborhood and that it would be a good idea for us to make tracks. They didn't argue.

Fifteen minutes of long-striding got us off the ridge and into flatlands where we hoped to find a village and a bus stop. A vineyard lay to our right. The large, gnarled vines, each in a shallow depression, had been harvested already. A pinnacle caught Jeremy's eye. It was across the vineyard about a hundred yards away. Both sons turned immediately and headed for this new object of curiosity. They'd spied a cave entrance partway up the pinnacle. I complained about the impending rain, but they ignored me.

As I made my way carefully through the vineyard, Jeremy was already partway up the rock wall guarding the entrance to the cave. This wall was ten or twelve feet high with an overhanging lip at its top. Jeremy's long reach had gotten his shoulders and chest over this lip and partway into the cave. At this point, his feet lost contact with the rock and the cave's smooth floor afforded no further holds for his hands. He began thrashing and flailing. His sweater rode up and his pants slipped down. A new moon rose over the vineyard. Jeremy called out urgently, stridently even, for help.

This emergency paralyzed Jon and me, though not with concern. We folded over and laughed raucously. So far were we from sympathy that we both heartily wished Patrick and Ruben could share the moment! Jeremy continued to flounder on the edge of disaster, however, so we each reached up, grabbed a foot and shoved. Jeremy yelped in pain and slid into the cave. He suffered tummy abrasions, but was otherwise unharmed.
Jon leapt up the wall, thrashed for a moment and then rolled past the lip into the cave. I stretched my arms and prepared for action. I gripped convenient knobs, raised my right foot to a high hold and overheard my sons pondering how they would ever get old dad over the intervening lip. I've been a rock climber for thirty years. There's technique to climbing an overhang. I pulled up, straightened my right leg, transferred my weight to my downward pushing hands and stepped gracefully into the cave. Rare are the moments when paternal competence is made obvious to one's sons! They must be savored! Even exploited! The boys recovered from their surprise at this display of paternal competence all too quickly, however, and surveyed the cave.

It was a most uninteresting cave. We decided to leave immediately. The boys, with youth's disregard for gravity, leapt out of the entrance and landed in the soft soil of the vineyard. More mindful of gravity's potential toll on old knees, I reversed my climbing acrobatics and had only a three-foot drop to negotiate.
We regained our trail and continued our search for the missing village. The trail became a road and reached an unmarked junction. There are few road signs in central Turkey. If you don't know where you're going, to heck with you! Both roads continued in roughly the same direction. The right hand fork was rutted, overgrown, muddy and unpleasant looking. Ignoring Robert Frost, we took the smooth, well-maintained left branch. Rain pelted down. We hunched our shoulders and walked on.
After fifteen minutes, we realized that we'd taken the wrong road. Our choice had curved around and was now headed vaguely southwest toward Goremé. The main highway was visible off to our right. We decided it wasn't worth the effort to retrace our steps. We'd probably miss the bus anyway. We re-hunched our shoulders and headed for Goremé. Rain patted us on the back.

Cold, wet and tired, we trudged along the road. Despite our discomfort, I felt contented and sensed that my contentment was shared. We'd had a fine adventure. Still, the next half hour was a weary one. We were all relieved to reach the highway and ultimately the bus stop in front of a tourist shop. Goremé is used to foreigners, so no Muslim sensibilities were offended, Ramadan though it was, when Jeremy bought several of the little green bottles of mineral water he so favors.

The mini-bus - a battered, pale blue vehicle - pulled up after twenty minutes or so. These buses are heavily used and are staffed by both a driver and a conductor. This is a good idea, one which I wish we'd emulate in the U.S. Perhaps I've been stuck in one voice-mail system too many, but I think that paying a human being to perform a useful service is often far more efficient than devising some machine to do an inflexible, impersonal job.
Jeremy paid our fares and we found seats at the back of the bus. The bus doors clattered shut and, belching diesel smoke, it pulled away from the store. We drove for a mile or so on an increasingly steep road, an ancient shortcut to the main highway. When the pavement switched from asphalt to wet cobblestones, our bus lurched, groaned and stopped. Gears ground and clashed. I only became alarmed when the abused machine slid backwards. Then engine, belching like a hippo afflicted with gas, it lurched upwards again. Complaining mightily, it inched forward at a mile an hour or so. I glanced at the other passengers. None seemed concerned.

Our rusted chariot finally leveled out on the main highway to Urgup and I breathed a sigh of relief. I leaned back in my seat and looked out the fogged up, rain-spattered window. I figured I'd earned a beer - Efés for preference.

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